Playing with fire

WE SIT IN the shade on the back veranda of Mardoo cattle station sipping hot, sweet tea from pannikins. Ringer’s young sons are dragging tree branches along behind them, pretending they are trucks and fuelling up at termite mounds the fine colour of rust. Smoke rises from mustering fires, flushing rouge bulls from the breakaway country on the station’s eastern boundary. ‘You nor’westerners are so blasé about fire. Maybe it’s all this space, the people–country ratio.’ I sweep my hand around a near 360-degree horizon, which, 130 million years ago, was a huge river delta, a dinosaur stompin’ ground. I say ‘you’ because, despite living here for well over a decade, I’m still not considered local.

‘Oh, you gotta watch ’em,’ Ringer rolls a cigarette.

He tells me about the time one of the mustering fires got out of control. The manager asked him to take the old Dodge firefighting truck and patrol the western boundary. ‘The truck kept on conking out on me. Weather was too hot and the petrol kept vaporising.’

A big wall of fire was heading his way when the engine finally died on him. ‘I heard somewhere that if I blew into the petrol tank I might just move the petrol further up the line to the carbie so the engine would start.’

‘Did it work?’

‘I’ve got my gob jammed over the fuel tank, blowing for all I’m worth, trying to build up the pressure. When I take my mouth away…kshsh!’ He makes a blowing sound. ‘I’m covered in fuel with the truck that wouldn’t start. And that fire?’ he pours more tea. ‘Well, it just kept getting closer.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I hoik off my clothes, chuck them in the bushes and hose myself down. Now I’m naked with a fire getting closer. I search the back of the truck for something to wear and find this rag which turns out to be an old maternity dress of Lindy’s.’

I laugh.

He winks. ‘It gets better.’

‘How does that get better?’ The image of Ringer in a frock, bird-of-paradise tattoo dripping down his left arm, lank ponytail and pussycat tooth stuck through a hole in his left ear lobe is hilarious.

‘That God-bothering mob from the neighbouring station come over to help. Caught me hosing the flames down in a frock.’ He smiles. ‘Stopped droppin’ in for cups of tea, trying to convert us after that.’

MOST FIRE STORIES in the north-west revolve around comedy rather than the tragedy and drama of the southern and eastern states. There’s a sign ten kilometres out of my town on the highway, proclaiming, ‘Fire Risk’. It’s a half circle, divided into four colours; white, blue, yellow and red with an arrow swinging from the radius. The sections are labelled: low, moderate, high, extreme. Someone’s scratched out ‘Fire’ and written ‘Tourist’ over the top. That’s how seriously some people take their fires.

My fire story starts in a state with a history of black-something days. A hot, westerly wind was bringing to the boil the cauldron that can be Melbourne. We lived out of town at a place where smooth-barked manna gums and silver wattles were gradually reasserting themselves among the willows and plum trees growing along the Yarra River. A country built-up of Silurian siltstone and sandstone cemented together with clay and crosshatched with deserted gold mines. I’m home alone when I smell smoke. Warrandyte kids are hot-wired to know that smoke in these conditions isn’t good. I follow my nose, which leads me to an incinerator smouldering on our neighbour’s fence line. A big puff of wind blows across the ridgeline and, right before my eyes, a line of flame rips up the trunk of a eucalyptus. When it gets to the understory, it explodes in a big ball of fire.

‘WERE YOU AROUND for the Ash Wednesday fires?’ Ringer asks me.

‘The summer of 1983? Nah, I was on holidays, three hundred ks away from the fires in Port Fairy. I remember walking down the main street when this hot blast of air hit us. It was like someone had opened an oven. The sky was orange and it was raining ash by the evening.’

‘Seemed like the whole of the state was alight.’

‘Everyone was affected by those fires. Even the people who weren’t directly involved were traumatised. And then I moved up here and people’s attitude to fire couldn’t be more different.’

When I travelled to the north-west, I took up a teaching job with an independent bilingual Aboriginal community school and was taken out to meet the mob who were camping the night at Sheepcamp on the Oakover River. We arrived at dusk and the kids had set the spinifex alight. It was a wall of crackling, spitting flame. Grasshoppers pinging into the air and lizards running helter-skelter to safety. The orange flames screaming against a moonless night. The adults seemed unperturbed. From that moment on, fire became my ally, not my enemy. The mob used fire to cook and light the way, to clear pathways and sites, flush out animals, reveal burrows, chase away or bring on rain, encourage regeneration. Fire warned and informed people. It let the community know where people were and what they were doing. That mob read fire, even the little kids: they could tell if people were hunting or cooking or had ‘sent up a smoke’ to let the mob know they had broken down on their way home. The Nyangumarta used fire to farm. Fire was a language and system I’ve still not grasped the intricacies of, nor will, I suspect. The whitefella teacher before me had set his Toyota on fire. Its burned-out carcass sits on the track just before the turn-off to Warrawagine Station. The Toyota-burning story stirs up much frivolity among teachers, Ron and Munda Woodman.

‘He broke down and thought he might send up a smoke,’ Munda tells me on a drive back from the river one day. ‘When we found him, his Toyota was all burned up.’ She hoots with laughter.

‘He bin lit the smoke downwind from that truck!’ Ron says, smiling. ‘He stupid or what?’

‘Stupid alright,’ the old girl remarks, shaking her head and wiping tears from her eyes.

‘He had no luck with motor cars, that boy. Broke down in the school truck on the track goin’ pijukarti…creek y’know and walked a-a-all the way. Got there in the middle of the night, everyone was asleep. In the morning when we went to get it, it was burned too.’

‘What?’ I ask. ‘He sent up another smoke?’


‘A storm come up that night, didn’t it?’ she looks to Ron who’s chuckling. ‘Lightning and…’ she stops, waving her hand in front of her face overcome with laughter.

‘’Nother fire,’ Ron finishes the sentence for her. ‘And they reckon us blackfellas get through the motor cars.’

Munda shrieks.

Despite driving past those burned-out shells of vehicles for years, I couldn’t help myself. Lighting up the spinifex would be the first thing I’d do when we went camping. Upwind of course; I didn’t want to inherit the stupid whitefella cap. Spinifex is coated with sticky sap that smells like the coconut suntan lotion of ’70s summer holidays. The sap helps ignite the spinifex, producing a hot, fast, aromatic blaze most satisfying to repressed Victorian pyromaniacs. Over the years, I passed this love for lighting up the spinifex onto my children. They saw it as the most natural thing in the world to do. Their boldness has much to do with my own relaxed attitude to fire, it’s true, but it can also be attributed to growing up in a landscape far removed from tall timber. On his first visit to Victoria as a small child, my eldest son pointed to a tree and asked me what it was.

WHEN DID ‘BUSH’ change to ‘wild’ when it came to fire? Is it a west-versus-east thing like ‘bathers’ versus ‘togs’ and ‘milkbar’ versus ‘deli’? Or is it something a little more than jargon and firmly connected to politics, as when ‘boat people’ became ‘illegal immigrants’? If we use the word ‘wild’ then we introduce an element of needing to be tamed. When we use ‘bush’ we take ourselves out of the equation. There’s not a lot of human agency in ‘bush’. It can exist perfectly well without us. The media often portray fire as some kind of beast requiring herculean efforts to defeat. Now fires are our dragons and we are saved by knights armed with hoses and fixed-winged water bombers.

Australian winters are our dry season in the north-west. People living outside of town clear firebreaks in the Dry. Preceding the Dry is the Wet. The wet season is the time of abundance: abundant humidity, greenness, cockroaches and mould. Spear grass grows taller than a man during the Wet. Dragonflies signal the beginning of the Dry. Around about then, easterlies roar in from the Great Sandy Desert making everything powder dry. A few ‘knock-’em-down’ storms flatten the spear grass so there is plenty of fuel to be burned.

In the Dry we get our fair share of bushfires, some caused by lightning. Others include burning-off fires, mustering ones and those that are part of fire-control regimes lit by the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), Western Australia’s Fire and Emergency Services (FESA), as well as traditional owners. FESA burn-offs are now called ‘prescribed burns’, which insinuates that there is something wrong with the bush, that it needs treatment or a remedy.

FESA’s prescribed burns are supposedly carried out early in the dry season, before June, whereas late dry season fires are usually the result of arson or campfires getting out of hand. This year it was a tourist at Willie Creek who started a bushfire. Last year it was FESA, whose back-burn to contain a bushfire got a bit wild when an unexpected sea breeze cranked up. If properties and people aren’t at risk, these government departments prefer to let fires burn out. We don’t have as big a population of people living in the bush as they do down south and over east. But this room-to-burn attitude has come back to bite FESA and DEC, especially after the Boorabbin National Park fires, west of Kalgoorlie, which took the lives of three truck drivers as they drove along the Great Eastern Highway.

Then there were the runners participating in the Racing the Planet ultramarathon at El Questro in the eastern Kimberley. The front forced some runners into a narrow gorge where there was no chance of escape; two young women were horribly burnt, one had to fight for her life. FESA and DEC copped flack after those incidents. People asked, ‘What’s wrong with this crew, why are they letting fires burn instead of fighting them?’ FESA and DEC still let the wild fires burn out but their response at removing human beings from the equation is now swift, their fear of retribution palpable.

A COUPLE OF years ago, for National Science Week, I travelled with a friend two hundred kilometres along a corrugated red-dirt road to visit Nyul Nyul and Bardi communities on the Dampier Peninsula. We travelled in a rattletrap of a car, and the only way to conduct a conversation was to shout at each other. When we got to Bruno Dann’s block at Twin Lakes, the peace and quiet was breathtaking. Bruno and his wife Marion cultivate gubinge, Terminalia ferdinandiana.

They are one of Australia’s major producers of this new superfood. It’s super because it’s one of the richest sources of vitamin C known to man. When I say ‘cultivate’ I really mean ‘encourage’. This gubinge isn’t propagated and planted in neat rows, it isn’t fertilised or sprayed with insecticides. Gubinge have always been growing there and Bruno and Marion just help the trees along. And when I say ‘help’ I really mean nurture. Bruno tells us that they talk to trees, hold onto them and let a tree feel their heart beating, rub them down, make them feel special.

Their gubinge orchard is far too precious to risk fire going wild. One of the ways they look after it is through traditional land and fire-management practice. While we make our way toward the lakes through the orchard, Bruno quietly explains how he walks over the land, mapping the special areas, burning it in sequence, rotating the burns, year in, year out. ‘The land speaks for itself,’ he tells us, dragging a hollow log and some dead trees together. ‘There are areas you just don’t burn.’

We help him and, as sweat drips down my legs into my boots, the woodpile grows. We are clearing the country of fuel while, at the same time, providing wildlife with homes and havens when a fire is lit. The fire, Bruno says, is lit during the cool, dry, dewy season on windless early mornings to minimise the chances of it going wild. These kinds of burns leave the country looking healthy, the leaves on the trees are still intact, animals don’t perish. Afterwards, we sit by the lake in the shade of the paperbarks shrouded in butterflies recently hatched from their cocoons, watching the donkeys, at the opposite end of the lake, watching us. At this time of the year the lake has dwindled to a pool. I smell the moist, dark earth of the wetlands and think about Bruno’s approach to fire and how it puts a whole different slant on the western media’s perception of fire being the bad beastie guy and men being shining and herculean. Back-burns and burning off at the wrong place at the wrong time during the end of the Dry, without rotating fires and providing havens for animals, is less Hercules, more Viking.

LATE SEASON FIRES in the Dry, fed by an enormous fuel-load, can kill trees, but worse, they’ll wipe out the seed bank on the ground. ‘Regular fires don’t allow the seed to mature and fall,’ my mate Doc says, shaking his head as we drive past the burn-offs on the Broome–Derby highway. ‘These really hot fires kill other tree species like the bloodwoods and the woolybutts, the bauhinia, gardenia and ficus, allowing the acacia to take over. If the fires are continual these, too, get destroyed and the sorghum and spear grass dominate, leaving us with savannah instead of pindan woodland.’

Fires have already decimated the beautiful Cooktown ironwood, which once was the best building timber in the north. The saplings are slow to regenerate and now they don’t stand a chance. Doc is part of an organisation called the Society for Kimberley Indigenous Plants and Animals (SKIPA). Doc wants to get rid of the ‘animal’ bit and make it just SKIP. He’s mad for it. SKIPA members are a core group of people who love the pindan woodland that grows around Broome. Loving pindan woodland is a little bit like loving an old dog that farts a lot. You need to know pindan woodland to love it, see it closer and more regularly than through the window of a car. Pindan woodland fruits and flowers provide food and medicine for Yawuru people and a haven for all kinds of animal and bird life. SKIPA members collect seed, propagate indigenous plants and wage war on invasive weeds. This year, they have funding to create a living seed bank. They also embark on revegetation and rehabilitation programs and try to wean people off their water-thirsty lawns and palm trees. I’d like to think that the understated beauty of native bush will win people over in the end. That they’ll be wooed by the white trunks and yellow, tombowler-sized blossoms of the elephant-ear wattle; struck by the green-red contrast of a mamajun tree in full fruit; stopped in their tracks by the earthy smell of a ti-tree forest. But, in the end, I think it’s the water bills that will change people’s thinking.

THERE’S ANOTHER ECOSYSTEM up here even more fragile than the pindan woodlands and that’s the monsoonal vine thickets of the coastal dunes. Fire is a big threat to these thickets. Since 1992, Jeanné Browne has been walking and documenting the plant, animal and cultural heritage of the country traversed by the annual Lurujarri Dreaming Trail – what the Goolarabooloo people call ‘living country’ between Minyirr, Gantheaume Point, Broome and Bindiangoon, Yellow River. She has a plethora of paintings, prints and journal extracts from time spent with the Goolarabooloo community, Paddy Roe and Richard Hunter in particular. The Goolarabooloo have been walking this songline with people from all over Australia for twenty-three years now. It takes a great many years of walking the trail to understand that it’s not about getting to know the country but, rather, the country getting to know you. Jeanné says the vine thickets of quondong and walmadany offer a concentrated and diverse array of bush fruit to supplement the wealth of reef fish, shellfish and marine food sources of the adjacent reef. The thickets have been a favoured camping area for Aboriginal people in the area for many centuries. They aren’t part of the traditional firestick-burning regime. As Bruno Dann says, ‘There are areas you just don’t burn.’ Jeanné created a large screen-printed artwork on canvas of these thickets. It’s greeny-blue and purple on a sandy background with snatches of pink and red that are the flowers, leaves and seed pods of the jiggle (Bauhinia) or ‘mother-in-law’ tree. The canvas is scattered with line drawings of shells and artefacts found in the middens as well as species names, both in the Aboriginal language of the area and English. A lizard with its U-turn tail nestles beneath the foliage. The writing on the top right-hand side of the print reads: ‘Soft place. Haven’.

THERE IS A spectacular example of a monsoonal vine thicket on the eastern side of the Dampier Peninsula, at the pearl farm of Cygnet Bay – or Borrgoron as the Bardi mob call it. It’s spectacular because, like Twin Lakes, it has been lucky enough to escape the fires. Cygnet Bay. Again, I rode that two hundred-kilometre stretch of red-dirt road. The journey was slow, this time, rather than loud, due to a chip that had lodged itself in the filter. It gave me a chance to view the country on either side of the road properly. It had been burnt beyond an inch of its life and had that drab, suburban sameness about it. No green, mostly grey, all acacia and grass. The vine thickets at Borrgoron were another story. I was astounded by the girth of those trees, the shade they provided, the bird life they supported. It was so very hard to leave that soft place, that haven, and drive back to my hometown, the ‘tropical paradise’ spruiked in tourism brochures.

Ringer is a bit of a bush botanist. We spend a lot of time talking about the plants and animals, Ringer and I. So he gets it when I speak passionately about the monsoonal vine thickets. ‘They’re fighting for their lives,’ I tell him. ‘I read somewhere that if you wipe out one ecosystem it impacts on another which then impacts another… It’s the domino principle.’

‘Now that really is playing with fire,’ Ringer says and we watch the mail plane fly over. He sloshes the dregs of his tea on the ground, pulls on his ten-gallon hat and saunters off towards the airstrip.



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